As many as half of college students black out or brown out from drinking alcohol – but most of them don’t understand what makes it happen, a new study reveals.
Drinking in high school has consistently declined in the US, but that encouraging trend goes out the window once Americans hit adulthood.
Over the age of 18, Americans are drinking record amounts of alcohol, and binge drinking in particular is up.
Despite the fact that half the college students surveyed by researchers at Brown University had browned out or blacked out sometime in the past month, most of them didn’t know what kind of drinking would interfere with their memories.
Half of college students get black out drunk – but most of them don’t know why or how to avoid having a night they won’t remember, a new study found
Getting ‘black out drunk’ has practically become a punch line. Teens (over) use the phrase, movies use it as a narrative device for hilarity to ensue and countless Americans use it as an excuse for being on less-than their best behavior.
It’s a common practice.
In fact, when newly-minted Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh was asked in his confirmation hearing if he had ever been black out drunk, he snapped back at Senator Amy Klobuchar and asked if she had been.
He stood accused of blacking out during college, something that the Brown University researchers say is avoidable – but most don’t know why they black out, much less how to prevent it from happening.
The research team, led by Dr Kate Carrey, a professor in the school’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, carried out a series of three studies – consisting of surveys and interviews – on college student drinking.
In the first discussion forum, 50 students were generally aware of the baseline risk factors for a black out: hard liquor, drinking a lot, and drinking it quickly.
But the nuances were lost on them.
Unbeknownst to most of the students, women are more likely to black out (three drinks sooner than their male counterparts), and other genetic factors come into play.
By some estimates, having a mother who had alcohol problems makes people of either gender more likely to black out, and genetic predisposition may account for as much as 50 percent of blackouts.
Then there are the factors that are within students’ control – if they should choose to have any.
We don’t know all of the mechanisms at work in black outs, but we do know that drinking on an empty stomach, being short on sleep, ‘pregaming,’ mixing different liquors and mixing alcohol and drugs all raise the risks of blacking out or browning out.
But the study’s college students didn’t know that.
‘The kind of drinking that results in alcohol-related memory impairment is common, but it’s also not typically done with the intent of blacking out,’ Dr Carey said.
‘And those who regularly drink and report blackout experiences don’t have a full understanding of what causes them,’ says Dr Carey.
For the better of student’s minds and perhaps for the worse for their livers, if these students knew the causes they could drink more and black out less.
‘The interesting thing is that regardless of how much you drink, there are ways to drink so that you don’t black out,’ Dr Carey says.
Although some studies found that having 15 drinks over four hours would give you a solid chance of blacking out, and it can happen after as little as two, spacing as many drinks out over time as possible could help you dodge a blackout.
So could the oldest drink in the book: water.
Just small amounts of water drunk throughout a night of drinking can keep blood alcohol from spiking out of control, which begins to drown out memory.
Blacking out precedes passing out, and in some ways can be more dangerous, as the person may continue to engage in activities that endanger themselves and others – such as sexual activity and driving – so long as they remain conscious.
Black outs can cause lasting damage to the brain, including, in about one to two percent of Americans, a permanent seizure condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome which permanently impairs the memory and vision.
Historically, simply teaching students the dangers associated with alcohol, has shown little efficacy in changing their behavior.
Instead, the Brown University team found that talking about students’ blackouts with them and helping them to see these experiences as dangerous rather than ‘exciting’ (as some students described them) made young people rethink black out drinking.
‘We hope that focusing in on this one particular consequence of a certain style of drinking will provide lots of opportunities for interventions,’ said Dr Carey.